China gets in gear with the bicycle trend

While many people still imagine Chinese cities thronged with bicycles, the reality is very different and the car now rules supreme.

But rising wealth in China is translating into an interest in the sport of cycling. A big advance in making cycling popular in China came with the launch of the Tour of Beijing road race. The first tour took place in October 2011 as the penultimate event in the 2011 UCI World Tour.

In China, as with other sports such as golf and polo, the key to popularising a sport is to have a Chinese hero for people to support. And to develop heroes, you need races like the Tour of Beijing to provide a platform for young sportsmen and sportswomen.

Last year's competition was won for the second time by Tony Martin of the Omega Pharma-Quick Step team. He suggested the organisers add some climbs and an uphill finish. Sun Zhanbo, the general secretary of the Beijing Cycling Association, says the Tour is set to boost the sport but there needs to be more investment in the commercial aspects.

"Because we have only had the Tour of Beijing for two years, it hasn't yet [had] the same kind of economic impact as something like the Tour of France. There is no economic return yet. We are not making any money by organising this event because we do not have enough media advertisements to promote Tour Beijing the same way as the Tour de France," says Mr Sun.

He says it is only in recent years that cycling has started taking off as a sport and recreation activity.

"At the 18th Communist Party congress in November, we were encouraged to make progress in competitive sports and to promote low-carbon manners of transport. The best form of low-carbon transport is cycling," says Mr Sun.

"There is a saying that if it is within three miles, people should walk. If it is five miles away, people should cycle. If it is 10 miles away, then people can drive. People use bicycles from the environmental point of view and entertainment point of view.

"At the weekend, a group of people can get together and cycle around. Cycling keeps people in a good mental state and makes people have a more disciplined lifestyle. More people are realising the benefits of cycling. When more and more people cycle, then our cycling competitiveness will improve," says Mr Sun.

He cites the national football team, which has struggled of late.

"Honestly, it is not the footballers' problem. When more people play it, then our football competitiveness will improve," he says.

"If Beijing wants to become an international city, it has to have an international sports event like the Tour of Beijing, that is at the same level as the Tour de France. The Olympics in 2008 accumulated precious experience for Beijing to host other international sports, such as the Tour of Beijing. This event is one of our strongest cards to communicate with abroad."

The tour is a partnership between the UCI and the city government in Beijing and it covers an initial period of four years from 2011 to next year. The Chinese race was the first time the UCI organised an elite men's professional bike race under its commercial arm, Cycling Global Promotion.

It is seen as a legacy of the Beijing Olympics of 2008 and part of the city's efforts to promote Beijing as a global event city, while also promoting the environmental and healthy living aspects of cycling.

The UCI president Pat McQuaid thinks the Tour of Beijing has done wonders to promote cycling in China.

"We see more cyclists out on the road coming to the starts and finishes as well," Mr McQuaid says on the organisation's website. "I think the Tour of Beijing itself is going to do a lot in the coming years to further develop the sport of cycling in China."

According to statistics from China Bicycle Association, last year 82.7 million bicycles were produced, which was down 0.8 per cent year on year, although the total gross annual value rose 9.4 per cent and the margin was up 41.3 per cent. Gong Xiaoyan, the chairman of China's bicycle and electric bicycle industry association, says more and more Chinese are cycling now, including on road-racing bikes, as a lifestyle or sports option rather than a tool of transportation.

This can be seen in the increase in the number of bikes available costing more than 1,000 yuan (Dh600). Also in July and August, the number of high-end bicycles worth between 5,000 and 10,000 yuan rises sharply as people buy them for leisure activities.


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